The Power of Language Choices
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 11:48am

(Photo: Pierre Metivier, flick)

During our listening tour, my co-CEO Elisa and I got plenty of honest feedback about Teach For America, positive and negative.  One criticism that stood out: our colleagues in this work let us know that whether intentional or not, Teach For America’s interactions with corps members, alumni, community partners and even our own staff often felt transactional, as if we valued people for what they could do for us instead of their intrinsic worth. 

This was hard to hear.

We know that cannot be the foundation of a movement, particularly one focused on educational justice.  Looking back on the conversations Elisa and I had with people who felt we needed to be more relational, one recurring theme was the language we use when talking about our work.

As a community focused on a common goal, we have a common set of comfortable terms we use to describe different aspects of our work.  I’ve been thinking about some of our terms, and as I have considered them, I’ve started to realize that some of our language is imprecise at best, and alienating at worst.  Let me give a few examples.

First: “Human capital.” There is no better example of our language focusing on our perceived value to the cause, rather than on our individual humanity.  Yes, the concept is intended to highlight the importance of bringing great people into this work and keeping them there, but it evokes the idea that people are an interchangeable commodity.

People aren’t capital.  We’re human beings with tremendous talent to offer, unique voices, and the potential to contribute to this work in so many different ways.  What’s more, anything that insinuates that humans are something that can be owned is particularly problematic in the work we do, and to the communities we work with.  We didn’t create this term, of course, but we are collectively choosing to bring it into our work, and I am personally reconsidering that choice.

Another example: the use of the term “achievement gap” has been a subject of some debate both here at Teach For America and in the broader education community.  For years, we used it freely, but more and more often I’m hearing thoughtful critique of the term. 

It positions white students’ academic performance as the standard to which others must aspire in order to eliminate educational inequity – and casts the problem as a shortcoming of historically under-served communities.  Achievement is itself a value laden idea in our society, so to say some people have more of it than others, without explaining further, leaves the problem at the doorstep of the most under-served students and their families.  It doesn’t make it clear that we think the causes of those differences are unequal and inadequate educational opportunities, not inherent differences in capability or character.

It’s become a catch-all phrase to broadly describe educational inequity, a problem which is not simply about academic achievement but also about the development of character strengths and personal identity and access to opportunities and so much more.  And by oversimplifying in this way, it contributes to us oversimplifying the ways we actually educate children, pulling us away from the whole child.

Another example: for years, people (including us) have referred to our recruits as “the best and the brightest.”  This is walking a fine line.  On the one hand, we are recruiting some extraordinary people.  At the same time, this type of comparative language can be alienating to our partners.  It feels like we’re celebrating our people’s “elite-ness,” and by extension celebrating elitism itself.

One more:  “proof point” as a description of a school or a community comes out of our genuine desire to identify what’s working and let others know.  But the term reduces hundreds of children and teachers or even a whole city into a piece of evidence to be used for some other purpose, vs. celebrating the incredible opportunities available to the kids right there.  It’s also too binary – one school is a proof point, the rest are not – instead of taking a more asset based approach, and recognizing that many schools have something great about them, and even our best schools need to get much, much better.

What’s important about each of these words or phrases is what they communicate about what and whom we value.  Do they show that we think that every person matters, and that each person has intrinsic worth?  Or do they show us trying to get something (albeit important) done, and using each other as a means to an end? 

I don’t think the solution here is for us to start policing each other’s language, or making up alternative terms that represent the same ideas.  On the contrary, it’s the short-hand that gets us in trouble in the first place, and I think we need to spend more time thinking about what we really mean, and try to use words that accurately convey our intent.  Given the nature of our work, as educators and as movement builders, we cannot let anything get in the way of our connecting fully and authentically with each other, with students, and with our many partners in this work.  Particularly when it’s something that is as much in our control as our language.

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